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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I rise to support the principle behind this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has said, the Minister indicated some flexibility at Second Reading so I hope that we shall hear more on that today. Ultimately, the question itself has to be the responsibility of Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, I do not believe anyone should fear that this amendment takes away from that. I feel that that point should be stressed in case the wrong interpretation is made.

However, the issue is complex. We must take care to avoid multi-option questions and that the questions cannot be vulnerable to alternative meaning, as has happened not in this country but elsewhere. Those are compelling reasons why it should be tried and tested by an independent body to ensure that its regulation is correct. I hope that the Minister will give a fair wind to this amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall speak to Amendment No. 229 which I have tabled in this group of amendments. It deals with the same issue; namely, the nature of the question to be asked. However, I deal with it in a rather more vigorous way than does my noble friend, in that my amendment would make it

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mandatory to obtain the approval of the commission before a Bill containing provisions for a referendum could be laid before either House of Parliament.

Having listened to my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, it is clear that they would not agree with my argument that the commission should be the body to take the decision rather than Parliament. I must say that it is probable that my noble friend and the noble Baroness are right about that--the final and fundamental approval should rest with Parliament--but I suspect that, given the kind of conditions that my noble friend's amendment would lay down, Parliament would be foolish not only to consult the commission but also to take on board what the commission had to say.

This is an important issue. If one is to have referendums then the question itself is one of the key elements. I do not need to labour the point, but if one changes the nature of the question, one can change the answer. I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, when she says that multi-option questions should never be tried in referendums in this country. At this time of night I shall not bore noble Lords with examples from other countries where multi-option referendums have not worked at all, but those examples are on the record.

Even single questions, where the question could be open to misinterpretation, must be avoided. Twice in today's debates in Committee we have discussed the London elections where clearly a great many people did not understand the instructions. I would guess that that is where most of the spoiled papers came from. People were offered two votes and told that they "must" or at least "should" vote twice. The implication was that one vote should go in one column and another vote in the other column. I am not registered in London so I did not vote, but according to people who did vote and whom I know understand forms, documents and even Acts of Parliament--as was the case with one person who told me about this, a lawyer--they were just about to obey the instruction when they decided that it could not be right. Two votes had to be cast in two separate columns. I do not know if that is a fair reflection, but I then met another London voter who volunteered exactly the same information.

Clearly there was a problem, although I am sure that many very clever people thought that they had written the voting instructions in the clearest possible way. However, it is obvious that they had not written them in the clearest possible way. I suspect that the reason that happened was that those people had had no experience of these matters.

That is where the electoral commission would come in. It will be in a position to take advice and learn lessons from other parts of the world, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Norton. It will be able to acquire expertise and, because it will know that referendums will form an important part of its business, it will be in a position to undertake pilot work to ensure that the question is indeed unambiguous. The issue of referendums is the most

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important one here. That is because, frankly, I suspect that if we were not anticipating the advent of referendums in our system the need for an electoral commission would not be nearly as pressing.

Indeed, the first appreciable pressure for an electoral commission was expressed in a report from a joint body set by up the Electoral Reform Society and the Constitution Unit: the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums. I should not like to embarrass her, but I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, served on that commission. She will recall that at the time when the Scottish and Welsh referendums were set up I was insistent that some of the recommendations of that commission should be taken on board. Interestingly enough, at paragraph 107 the report concludes that,


    "The final decision on the wording could be made by the Government confirmed by Parliament (on the basis of a Government's proposal), drawing on the advice of the Independent Commission".

That is almost too weak. My noble friend's approach is the right one and, on reflection, I am probably being too vigorous. I am attempting to take power away from Parliament, which I would never dream of doing.

I believe my noble friend's approach is a better one than mine. I should like to hear the Minister say that the Government will come forward with something along the lines of my noble friend's amendment on Report in order to make sure that the electoral commission has a clear role in devising the question.

One of the important points about a referendum is that members of the public and the parties involved in it must be satisfied that it is run fairly so that the loser will accept the result. That is crucial in referendums. We shall no doubt discuss a number of factors later in the Bill which are part of building up that confidence. The most important of all may be that the question asked is fair and the answer achieved is therefore clear and fair.

I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the points made by both my noble friend and, perhaps more importantly when we come to these matters, his noble friend, and give us some indication--possibly for the first time today--that he will either accept the amendment or take it away and come back with a better one.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: I may have a solution to the problem put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I am in favour of and support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, would like to make the provision obligatory; he would like the commission to override Parliament. I suggest that the middle way is to make certain, not that it is obligatory, but that the advice is made public. The general public and the legislature will then know what has been

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suggested and either accepted or rejected. That might almost meet the problem. I commend it to the Government.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I have a great deal of sympathy with the objectives of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. My noble friend Lord Rogan and I survived two referendums where, in one case, the question was settled by a government department and, in the other, more recent case, the question was set by agreement with a foreign government. Some of us protested mildly about that idea but were told, "You must not rock the boat because you will send the wrong signal." So we had to cave in, to our shame.

Problems arise with regard to the commission being restricted to the role of tabling a draft which can then be mangled by some other authority and finally approved by Parliament. I do not take away from the sovereignty of Parliament. I suggest there is need for an impartial, powerful, firm body to do more than table a draft. It should bring forward a draft in such a way that anyone opposing it has to give good solid reasons why they disagree with it. In that way we would achieve a much fairer result. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, we would achieve a result broadly acceptable to the electorate in general.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have been sitting here reflecting on all that has been said in the Chamber this evening. It reminds me of what brought me into politics--a referendum.

There was an issue in the village where I was brought up, Great Bentley, as to whether or not a village hall should be built on the village green. My mother was on one side of the argument and I was on the other. A referendum was held. The beauty of that referendum, as I recall, was that it was a simple one to determine. She lost, and I won. I have reflected a lot since then on referendums being a good way of resolving issues. I know it is not something that always finds favour in your Lordships' Chamber, but it certainly helped on that occasion.

One of the last things I did in local government was to propose a referendum on the potential location of a football ground. We went for a simple approach under legal advice but without the benefit of an electoral commission, and I was encouraged. It was suggested by the local Green Party that we should have a multi-option referendum. We rejected that motion. I am pleased that that is something which your Lordships hold as being important. In retrospect, I rather wish that I had made the acquaintance of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, because I am sure that he would have fuelled me with all the relevant arguments to resist that somewhat better than I did at the time.

We have before us three suggested new clauses that would confer on the electoral commission a role in relation to the questions included in a Bill for a referendum. As the sponsors of the new clauses have explained, the new clauses seek their target in somewhat different ways. It is not often that the noble

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Lord, Lord Mackay, disowns his own argument, but it was an enjoyable experience. Indeed, to hear him advance someone else's argument was even more enjoyable. However, it is right that we look at the principles involved.

The idea that the electoral commission should have a role in relation to a referendum question is one that caught the attention of many noble Lords during Second Reading. It is an intuitively attractive notion. As we made clear in another place, the Government see some attraction in it. I believe that I can say that we intend to continue our consideration of this issue, taking account of what has been said this evening, and with, perhaps, a view to bringing forward our own amendment at a later stage. There are some bear traps and some of the contents of the amendments currently before the Committee do not represent the way to proceed.

Some countries have systems that allow a referendum to be held on the petition of a certain number of voters, without a special Act of Parliament to authorise it. A proposal for a similar scheme will actually come before this Chamber later in our proceedings. In such a scheme, it is obvious that a body is needed to administer the referendum in the widest sense. That would almost certainly include setting the question; otherwise, it must be accepted that there would be a risk that the question, or the consequences if an affirmative answer were given, would simply not make much sense.

However, under the system that we have a major national referendum will always be authorised by a special Act of Parliament. I do not believe that we would want to do anything that would undermine that fundamental principle. Indeed, I think that there is a degree of consensus on that point. The terms of the Bill, including the question to be asked, will be the subject of keen debate in both Chambers and, no doubt, in the country. In those circumstances, everything will be very much in the open. The referendum campaign organisations, which will be limbering up, will be quick to draw points to the attention of their sympathisers in Parliament, but Parliament will then decide.

That system has worked well in the past. Even with hindsight, I do not believe that anyone would be able to show that any of the questions asked in past referendums has been misleading or loaded. No government would do themselves much service on a matter likely to be the subject of intense political debate by trying to push through what one might say is a "phoney" referendum question. Nor, in my opinion, would any group opposing the wording of a referendum do itself much good by seeking to cry foul in advance or to quibble over the form of the question without due cause. Some people have tried over the years to mount arguments of this kind about the referendum on Common Market membership in 1975. But I do not believe that anyone has ever been greatly impressed by those arguments.

Therefore, I suggest to the Committee that there is no obvious or gross mischief that necessarily needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, given that there is to be an

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electoral commission on the scene, the question can quite properly and reasonably be asked: why cannot some advantage be gained by involving it? What harm would it do? There is, of course, some risk and we may perhaps return to that point. The risk is that of getting the electoral commission--this is important--involved in a political quarrel. I suggest that we need to find a solution that avoids that risk.

Our present thinking is that that might be best achieved if the electoral commission were able to advise on whether a proposed referendum question will be clear to the electorate. I believe that that lies at the heart of this particular issue. It will be in everyone's interest that a referendum question should be clear and intelligible; indeed, I believe that intelligibility is the key in this respect. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made that clear. He said that such matters should be neutral, unambiguous and clear. Those are three important tests. It will be in everyone's interest if that point can be separated from when the referendum should be held and whether the question is essentially the right one to be put.

I believe that in 1975 there was much discussion on whether the ballot paper should refer to the European Community or to the Common Market. It would be a clear advantage to have impartial and objective advice on that kind of matter. However, that is a world away from Amendment No. 229. This amendment seems to me to be somewhat extraordinary. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, recognised that. It would make it unlawful, perhaps even impossible, for a Bill for a referendum to be introduced without the electoral commission being consulted--and not merely consulted, but giving its approval. That would undoubtedly undermine the role of Parliament and the freedom of Parliament to involve itself in active debate.

I hope that I have been sufficiently warm on this issue. As I say, we want to consider the matter further. I am happy to consider further discussion outside the Chamber. We wish to bring forward our own amendment. In doing so we should focus on intelligibility. I believe that is the matter that we are discussing. I also hope that in suggesting that noble Lords withdraw their amendments this evening they will feel confident of the Government's good intentions. I hope that the amendment that we bring forward will satisfy the points that have been raised. I suggest that the amendments be withdrawn and that we consider the matter further before we bring forward our own amendment.


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